It has been three years since DreamWorks Animation introduced audiences to a magical yeti known as Everest and his friends Yi, Ji and Peng. Now, the studio hopes to recapture that magic with the new series Abominable and The Invisible City, which premieres this month on Peacock and Hulu. The show, which features the voices of Chloe Bennet (Yi), Tenzing Trainor (Jin) and Alan Cumming (Burnish), continues the adventures of Everest in the big city as the kids set out to help all the magical creatures that live amongst them
The show’s exec producer Jim Schumann (Spirit Riding Free, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness) came on board the project right after DreamWorks’ top brass Peter Gal and Kelly Kulchak told him about the spinoff series back in 2020. “Once I heard the names of some of the other folks involved in it (Katherine Nolfi, Rebecca Goldberg, Rachel Curet and Jason Caparaz) and knew that we were all on the same page for what the series could be, I was in.” Art director Sei Nakashima (Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked) says he was also a big fan of the original film, and after Schumann saw his artwork and asked him to join the team, he was happy to jump on board.
Schumann says he loves the fact that the show is about a trio of kids and a lovable yeti who go on some amazing adventures to find and make connections with magical creatures in the city. “They help these creatures not just using Yi’s magic, but by relying on each other and their family and the help of an unexpected new friend,” he explains. “It was the idea of really being able to explore and show those genuine relationships and tell those stories that excited me.”
Building a Vibrant City
It was a top priority for the creative team that the visuals of the show would be as close to the high bar set by the movie as possible. “The city is vibrant and alive and it needs to feel like its own character,” explains Schumann. “We took design and color cues from the film and added our own touches when we explore other areas of the city and surrounding environments in the series. We also really leaned into traditional 2D explorations for certain elements. Our art director, Sei Nakashima, did an amazing job creating the new, magical creatures for the series. Animation-wise, we also used the film as a resource for our animators at CGCG to refer to, which allowed them to then expand on that reference as artists and do some really amazing character work.”
“For the visual inspiration, we had the original feature look as base, then brought in wider visual keys from authentic Chinese culture and mythologies,” says Nakashima. “We found so many inspirations looking at just normal, daily local pictures sometimes — they gave us many important ideas on how we can enrich the world further. As for the creatures, I found it inspirational when we have a very simple old drawing from China, possibly because it is pure and doesn’t have much additional info from the others.”
The production team included about 90 people in Los Angeles and close to 200 people at CGCG studio in Taiwan and about 20 people at DAVE in Australia. “We started production on the show as the pandemic was gaining steam, so everyone on the team has worked remotely for pretty much the entire pandemic,” notes Schumann. The production relied on Maya and V-Ray to create the CG animation, with a few other tools for the crowd scenes.
For Schumann and his team, dealing with pandemic fatigue was one of the main challenges. “Team talent and passion for the show wasn’t going to be an issue, it was the mental well-being of the team that had to be accounted for,” says the showrunner. “What we do is deadline-based and can be stressful enough, and to throw in a global pandemic, it could get pretty hard. But even with working remotely, we were able to build a team atmosphere, a place where folks could come to get away from the craziness in the world and do something that they enjoyed doing. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had our speed bumps, but I’m really proud of the fact that we still have a lot of gas left in the tank.”
For Nakashima, achieving the established visual style and complexity within the scope of the show was a top goal. “Also, creating the authentic Asian feel throughout the show while making sure the things still remain recognizable and welcoming to all audiences was a big challenge,” he notes.
“One thing we set out to do in the series is to really flesh out the characters and their potential for story, so we discovered that each one has some great personality traits,” adds Schumann. “Having said that, my favorite is Everest, of course, because he really is a playful, lovable giant with a heart of gold. I’m definitely a fan of Yi and how genuinely strong she is in her convictions and how she can go from maternal to ass-kicker when needed. We also gave Mei and Nai Nai room to grow, and they have both turned out to be hilarious.”
Nakashima says he hopes that audiences will care more about other living things that share the planet with us. “I also hope the audiences will take away the importance of keeping the imagination alive even as we get older,” he notes.
Schumann agrees. “I hope they will feel the way we did when we made the show and be taken away by adventure, magic, comedy,” he says. “I also hope they will really be touched by emotion by a group of characters that really rely on each other to navigate the amazing new world of creatures that they’ve discovered and the real world around them.”
He also says he’s creatively dazzled by the high quality of animation produced all over the world over the past few years. “But after what could be called another ‘Golden Age,’ the last eight or so years with so much content being made, I think we’re starting to see a bit of a contraction start to happen as studios and parent companies navigate coming out of the last couple years,” Schumann points out. “My hope is that those larger entities will take into account that when everything else was shut down in Hollywood during the pandemic, animation thrived and helped keep the lights on for everyone.
DreamWorks Animation’s Abominable and The Invisible City premieres October 5 on Peacock and Hulu.